Under fire, Archbishop Nienstedt scrambles to respond

Archbishop John Nienstedt kept a relatively low profile on clergy sexual abuse until last week, when allegations of a pornography coverup put local church leadership in the spotlight.

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Archbishop John Nienstedt, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Archbishop John Nienstedt kept a relatively low profile on clergy sexual abuse until last week. Now he finds himself overseeing an archdiocese scrambling to react to charges of a pornography coverup inside his chancery.

Nienstedt’s top deputy resigned abruptly Thursday in response to an allegation that he covered up evidence of child pornography on a computer owned by a Hugo priest.

The accusation came from attorney Jennifer Haselberger, a former high-ranking lay official within the archdiocese. And it followed her earlier accusation that the archdiocese overlooked for nearly a decade the sexual compulsions of another priest — Curtis Wehmeyer of St. Paul — and did not warn parishioners. Wehmeyer is now in prison, convicted of sexually abusing two boys.

Haselberger declined requests for comment last week, but on Saturday she issued a blunt challenge to Nienstedt.

She said in a statement that she resigned as chancellor for canonical affairs in April because church leaders’ refusal to act on her allegations made it “impossible for me to continue in that position given my personal ethics, religious convictions and sense of integrity.’’

Haselberger called for Nienstedt to order a comprehensive external review of the clergy and that he make public the names of all those who have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct or could reasonably be assumed to pose a threat to children.

“Until this occurs, I do not believe that it can be said that the Archdiocese is honoring its promise to protect,’’ Haselberger concluded.

Nienstedt’s office issued an advisory to parish priests later Saturday, asking them to tell the faithful at Sunday mass that he is appointing the Rev. Reginald Whitt of the University of St. Thomas law school to oversee the diocese’s handling of clergy misconduct. Whitt will also appoint an independent lay task force to review all issues related to clergy misconduct and recommend new actions or policies. The task force’s findings will be made public, the archdiocese said.

New scrutiny could also come from civil authorities. Ramsey and Washington counties announced Friday they would open new investigations if the evidence warrants action.

Back in unwelcome spotlight

The events are a blow to an archdiocese that has weathered past accusations of sexual assault by some of its priests and tried to position itself as a national leader in the handling of such allegations.

Nienstedt felt compelled to issue a public apology in recent weeks in which he blamed himself for the church’s ineffectual handling of the Wehmeyer case.

“I have reflected on this at great length, and have questioned my own judgment in dealing with the situation,’’ Nienstedt wrote about Wehmeyer. “I should have handled this matter more aggressively and am sorry that I did not.’’

Rather than putting the sex abuse issue back to rest, however, Nienstedt’s statement has turned into a prelude to the latest allegation, which places a coverup nearly at his doorstep.

“These are very significant charges,’’ said Don Briel, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

“The questions are, how did this occur?” Briel said. “Who was responsible? This was larger than the process and procedures [to halt sexual misconduct] were able to address.’’

In a statement Friday, the archdiocese stressed that it is willing to take new steps to stamp out doubts about its integrity.

“Our record is not perfect, but we have made great progress, and we are determined to do whatever is necessary to eliminate this problem,’’ the archdiocese said.

‘This case is different’

Nienstedt, who became archbishop in 2008, is known for his hard-line opposition to gay marriage, and more recently as an advocate of immigration reform.

Combating clergy sexual abuse was a priority for his predecessor, former Archbishop Harry Flynn, who helped forge the national bishops’ policies and procedures on the issue during the height of the church’s child abuse scandals a decade ago. Those policies dealt with issues ranging from assisting victims to priest treatment programs to protocol for investigating allegations.

Nienstedt has been following those procedures, which were updated last year, said archdiocese spokesman Jim Accurso.

The allegations that Vicar General Rev. Peter Laird withheld computer evidence of child pornography raises the problem to a higher level, said Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

Laird wasn’t just another parish priest. He was second in command at the archdiocese, junior only to Nienstedt.

“Catholics and citizens who are inclined to say, ‘Ho hum, another Catholic sex scandal,’ should pay close attention here,’’ Schwiderski said. “This case is different.”

“Because several Catholic officials protected him, a priest who had thousands of images of child porn and might otherwise have spent the last decade in prison won’t go to prison,’’ he added.

The archdiocese, however, said the reports so far are incomplete and leave a “false impression” of events. It contends that while pornographic images were found on the computer that once belonged to a priest, none of it was child pornography. It also argues that Laird did nothing wrong.

“Father Laird has provided great leadership and excellent vision for this local Church, and I am grateful for his dedication and service to the Archdiocese,’’ Nienstedt said in a statement.

Laird will continue working for the archdiocese, including serving at the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Maplewood.

List of abusers secret

The pornography allegations were revealed in a St. Paul courtroom last week where another topic looming over the archdiocese was at issue — its decision not to make public a list of 33 priests accused of sexual abuse involving minors.

While archdioceses in Milwaukee, Chicago and Baltimore, among others, have gone public with similar lists, the Twin Cities archdiocese has argued that making the list public would expose the names of innocent priests who have been falsely accused.

The archdiocese argues, however, that it has always considered sexual misconduct a top priority. As evidence, it cites the following actions:

Since 2002, when its current sexual misconduct policies were put in place, the archdiocese has offered training to about 70,000 adult lay workers, conducted 105,000 background checks on clergy, staff and volunteers; and provided over 100,000 children with “age-appropriate lessons to help keep them safe.’’

In the week ahead, the archdiocese is likely to release more information on the mission and membership of its new task force, Accurso said.

“When the policies were adopted in 2002, there was growing confidence that the problem would not continue, or at least that the church would address it quickly,’’ Briel said. “This [week’s allegations] shows more needs to be done.’’

The archdiocese faces this crisis at a time when Catholic clergy in Philadelphia and other parts of the country are facing criminal charges for their handling of sex abuse cases.

In Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn was convicted last year of failure to report possible child abuse, after he became aware that one of his priests had child porn on his computer. The priest, who had been taking lewd photos of children, was eventually charged with producing pornography and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Finn was given two years probation.

One of the conditions of his probation was that his diocese forward to police all new reports of sexual misconduct by priests involving children.

 

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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